COVID-19 genome and design detection

We have the full COVID-19 genome available, including variants, and also the genomes of other similar viruses. We also have some disagreement over whether it evolved or was produced in a Chinese laboratory.

This could be a wonderful opportunity for ID creationists to use their design detection techniques, such as CSI calculations, to resolve an important political issue.

But they aren’t.


To nudge this discussion in a positive direction, maybe we can propose some methods which ought to be applied. We should also agree this is a secondary question: Keeping people healthy and working towards treatments are the primary concern. We can argue about ID later, with the survivors.

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I would be very interested in seeing how a determination of whether SARS-COV-2 was evolved or produced in a lab could be done. I heard Francis Collins say it looked like it did not come from a lab. I am getting inundated with Facebook posts about all kinds of conspiracy theories. I think it’s a good question that could tangentially intersect with ID.

Since there is sequence data, what specifically would it take to detect design in SARS-COV-2?


He wrote a nicely detailed blog post about this, based on a paper in Nature Medicine. However, he was not addressing the question of whether it “came from a lab,” only whether it bears signs of human engineering.


This is a false dichotomy. I don’t think any credible scientist is arguing that the virus was engineered. Rather there remain questions about whether or not the virus was collected in the wild by scientist and then accidentally released in Wuhan.

The scientist working on SARS in China at that site says that the COVID virus is not the same as those they have catalogued, it is too genetically different. That leaves several options:

  1. The Chinese scientist is not being truthful, perhaps due to government pressure or desire to save face, and actually knows that her group released it.

  2. A different lab released the virus and is keeping silent about it.

  3. The virus had infected one of their team when they collected samples, but was never specifically sequenced, so they could not identify it as from the lab.

  4. The virus was released by another source, such as the wet market.

None of us seem to be in a position to know one way or another which is most likely. This is a politically charged situation on so many levels.

Notice, nonetheless, that in all these scenarios we are discussing an evolved virus, not human engineered, that was accidentally released.

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I’ve seen so much conflation of “came from a lab” with “specially engineered” all over the place, really grinds my gears.


Since the presence of Complex Specified Information (in the original Dembski sense) or Functional Information (in the original Szostak/Hazen sense) could be due either to Intelligent Design or to natural selection, then seeing CSI is unable to tell us whether Covid-19 is the product of ID.

If you use William Dembski’s 2005 “Specified Complexity” measure, that has an additional clause added to the definitions that says you have SC only if a degree of adaptation that large has a very very low probability of arising by ordinary evolutionary processes. That leaves you in a considerable dilemma. You’re trying to see whether there is ID, so you try to compute SC. But to know whether SC is present you first have to find out what the probability of getting an adaptation that large by ordinary evolutionary processes. And we are given no clue how to do that.


Since a wild virus could be taken into a lab for study, then accidentally released somewhere. there would be no way to tell from its genome whether or not it “came from a lab”. When people hear the phrase “came from a lab” they are likely to think that it means deliberately engineered in the lab, so they may imagine we have some basis for telling.


Tautological maybe?

Well, the objective is to see if, by checking for Complex Specified Information (or an equivalent, Specified Complexity), we can establish that it is extremely improbable that this can have resulted from ordinary evolutionary processes. To see whether SC is there we must calculate the probability that an adaptation that substantial could arise by natural evolutionary processes. SC is defined as a condition that is there only if that probability is sufficiently small. How to calculate that probability? That was the problem SC (or CSI) was supposed to solve for us. To know A, we must calculate B, which is defined as requiring A.

Thus the SC or CSI part adds nothing: to know it is there we must have already solved the problem that SC or CSI was supposed to help us solve. But it sounds impressive to pose it in terms of CSI or SC.


I’m going to ask the obvious — has anyone put forth this question to the Discovery Institute?

How do you put questions to the Discovery Institute? They insulate themselves pretty thoroughly from any uncomfortable questions – there are no comments at “Evolution News and Science Today”, for example. Posts at Panda’s Thumb and at The Skeptical Zone about their arguments frequently pointedly ask how they can justify their assertions. The eagerness with which they respond is not exactly overwhelming.


They do follow this forum. Sometimes they respond.

What I find interesting about the argument in the Nature Medicine paper is that they seem to use the kind of reasoning that design advocates use as a major pillar of design thought: tracing back to a “mind.” Here is what those authors write about SARS-CoV-2:

It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. As noted above, the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted7,11. Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used19. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone20.

That seems to me to be saying: if a human had done this, it would look a lot different.

I do think the reasoning here deserves a clear analysis. They are only able to rule out design according to a particular model or mechanism of design. They could only rule it in according to a particular model or mechanism of design. This seems to be a critical point. They have a model for what design would look like versus not look like. This is fundamentally different than anything I’ve seen in ID.


Agree. We should probably note that they weren’t (and we aren’t) trying to rule out “design” in the grand scheme of things. They are asking whether the virus seems to have been designed and created, very recently, by humans. Of course it could have been “designed” by a god who hates humans, or by an alien for a science project on Planet Zargblatt. That wasn’t the question. But tools that can detect design should be able to detect it in this case, against the background of boring old selection on random variation. If those tools can’t do that, then those tools can’t distinguish evolution from “design,” which of course we all know to be the case.

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By humans using a particular software program (or similarly functioning software program). Of course a different human design strategy would have been missed by them too.

Note: this means their conclusions are somewhat beyond their data.

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Except they didn’t write “conclusions.” The paper is arguing that deliberate human engineering is unlikely and they explain why, while suggesting more likely explanations for the virus’ origin. They don’t reach “conclusions.”

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That’s a generous description of the method. Objects that do not exhibit SC, after adjustment for “computational resources”, will have probabilities greater than 1.0. (extremely generous for probabilities! :wink: )

Dembski takes the log-base-2 of a Binomial expectation, not a probability, which can be greater than 1.0. He even works an example that gives negative CSI, implying a probability greater than 1.0. I’m really not sure what he was thinking.


Not sure whether or not I agree with this. Will get back to you on it.

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